Archive for June, 2009

‘Brand’ St. Albert? Plug the potholes first!

This column was published in yesterday’s edition of the Saint City News.

The “Dr. Phil of tourism” brought his medicine show to St. Albert last week with the answers to what ails us. Thanks to Roger Brooks of Seattle, we now know that all we need to become a northern tourist sensation is a new “brand.” Right?

Wrong, unfortunately. The $70,000 US St. Albert has spent buying “branding” services from Mr. Brooks’s company is not a good use of our tax dollars. We could achieve the same goals ourselves for a tenth the cost – and spend the money locally to boot!

Branding is a business buzzword that describes marketing efforts to make businesses, products or services that are essentially the same seem unique in order to appeal to customers. There’s big money to be made giving things a “brand identity.”

Of course, people, businesses and places have always done this – they just used other terms and didn’t pay so much for the service.

The problem isn’t that branding doesn’t work – it can be an effective part of a marketing strategy. Imagine you’re looking for an edge over another automotive lube joint down the road. If you call your service “Mother Nature’s oil change,” maybe you can appeal to would-be environmentalists.

But merely proclaiming ourselves to be “Alberta’s botanic arts capital” isn’t going to turn St. Albert into a tourist mecca.

Here’s why: What is unique and desirable about St. Albert is not something that will attract meaningful numbers of tourists. Our city is safe and pleasant, in touch with its remarkable history, in possession of fine recreational facilities and home to an iconic civic building and a well-known gardening business.

In other words, it’s a great place to live. That means we’re unlikely to require “branding” to persuade people from the Capital Region that they’d like to move to St. Albert.

But we will never have – nor would most St. Albertans want – the kind of attractions needed for mass tourism. We are not next door to a natural wonder like the Grand Canyon, and we are not about to build Disneyland.

Moreover, as Mr. Brooks himself pointed out, successfully branding a community doesn’t happen overnight. You earn it. It takes time. So if a community has a perception problem – say, for too-high taxes – you can’t change it merely by adopting a cool slogan.

So did we really need an American branding guru to tell us some people come here to visit Hole’s Greenhouses, and that it might be a thought to develop a few spin-off businesses?

Not so many years ago, you’ll recall, every community in Western Canada was painting murals on buildings to attract tourists. “If you paint them, they will come,” was the theory. Lots of places, including St. Albert, painted them. Alas, the tourists never came.

In retrospect, it should have been obvious. No one in their right mind is gong to drive 10 miles – let alone 1,000 – to see a fading mural by an amateur artist on the side of a dilapidated building.

But at least the mural craze had some advantages. It was cheap, and in most cases employed local people.

Not so branding. Branding costs big bucks. It requires expensive specialists like Mr. Brooks, often from far away. It puts nothing back into the local economy. And in the end, if you’re not selling widgets or gasoline, it doesn’t make much difference.

Now that we’ve spent $70,000 US to determine the obvious, Mr. Brooks says he’ll be back in the fall with a proposal for the next stage. You can bet it’ll cost a whole lot more!

As taxpayers, we should ask ourselves: Do we really need to spend any more on this kind of thing? We’d do better using the money plugging potholes.

Advice to Jack Layton: Better a live chicken than a dead hero!

Jack Layton in Edmonton. Speaking of (Ralph) Waldo, can you find your blogger?

Which is worse? Being called a chicken by your friends, or doing something so stupid you kill yourself to prove you’re not afraid?

Lots of foolish young people have died needlessly because they were afraid to chicken out of a stupid dare. It’s for situations like this that the “Darwin Awards” were created. Having been young themselves once, this is among the greatest fears parents have for their children.

Well, folks, there are political Darwin Awards too. Jack Layton – a politician I like and admire – finds himself in the position of a feckless teenager who has threatened to do something foolhardy. Social democrats should fear for their party just as parents fear for their kids.

Having said he’d vote against Stephen Harper’s government no matter what, Mr. Layton could be faced with the prospect in the next few days of feeling he must contribute to an election that would bring no joy to the NDP and its supporters.

If the Liberals under Michael Ignatieff were to decide to bring down Mr. Harper’s government this week or next, they would almost certainly have the support of the Bloc Quebecois. The Bloc would calculate it could make gains in Quebec in a federal election held now.

But the Liberals and the Bloc don’t have enough votes between them to topple the government. To achieve that goal they need the NDP, which has said unequivocally it will vote to bring down the government regardless.

Alas for the NDP, such a strategy would be suicidal. Giving Mr. Ignatieff a chance to topple Mr. Harper and form a minority of his own would tempt most NDP voters to vote massively for the Liberals to block a Conservative majority.

The NDP could be wiped out.

So, for Conservatives and Liberals alike, a federal election this summer might be interpreted as a contest they could win. For the Bloc, it would likely be a no-lose situation. For the NDP, the probability is high it would be a catastrophe.

What should Mr. Layton do?

First, of course, he should pray that Mr. Ignatieff chickens out first. If the Liberals let the Conservatives’ “probation” continue, the NDP can rightly assail them as the party that yaks about the Harper agenda while it backs the Harper agenda. Liberals have voted to keep Mr. Harper in power 77 times, and 78 will look just that much worse. Who knows, at some point that fact might sink in with Canadian voters.

And Mr. Ignatieff could well back off. It’s clear that he and some of his advisers are not sure that now is the best time to go. He’s said to be holed up with the Prime Minister as this is being written, trying to find a way out of a summer election they’d both rather avoid.

On the other hand, there’s a school of thought that with the economy in the dumper and distrust of the Harperites growing in most parts of Canada, there may never be a better moment for the Liberals to pull the plug than right now.

In that event, I say Mr. Layton would be a fool to contribute to his own destruction and that of his party for the sake of keeping an ill-considered promise.

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” said the 19th Century American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (at right). Casting a suicidal vote against the government just because you said you would is an excellent example of foolish consistency.

“With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do,” Emerson added. Mr. Layton has a great deal to do, and Canadians need him to do it.

If Mr. Ignatieff pulls the trigger, Mr. Layton should find an excuse to back Mr. Harper’s government.

If he does so, he will suffer a certain amount of verbal abuse. He will be accused of breaking a promise. But since when did breaking promises hurt the prospects of Liberals or Conservatives?

Face it, this may make political zealots of all stripes angry, but in reality it’s something mature adults have to do from time to time when they consider all the facts. Anyway, just as the public does with those other parties, voters will soon forget.

Mr. Layton can bet on it: The sting of being called a chicken hurts less than the bitterness of political destruction.

Good for Galloway, bad for Rae? Explain, please!

If you’re going to dish it out, you ought to be able to take it.

This is good advice for countries, as well as individuals.

All Canada was in a tizzy this morning because Bob Rae (at left) had been booted out of Sri Lanka before he’d even had the opportunity to clear customs. “Politicians of all parties called the incident an insult to Canada,” quoth the august Globe and Mail from on high.

Serving up opinion as if it were fact, the Globe noted that the Government of Canada had condemned the violence-wracked island country for expelling the Liberal Member of Parliament and former New Democrat premier of Ontario “on the pretext that he was a security risk, calling the move ‘unacceptable.’” (Emphasis added. How does they Globe know they don’t actually believe this?)

A Foreign Affairs spokeswoman stated: “It is absurd to suggest that Mr. Rae represents a threat to Sri Lankan national security.”

Conservative Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon instructed Canada’s High Commissioner in Colombo to demand answers from the Sri Lankan government as to why Mr. Rae (as well as Conservative MP Deepak Obrai) had been turned away from his mission to check up on human rights in the wake of Sri Lanka’s disastrous civil war.

“Sri Lanka discredits itself,” the Globe opined on its editorial page.

No doubt even outspoken Toronto residents were appalled at Mr. Rae’s treatment by the Sri Lankans, despite practically calling for internment camps to be set up in May to deal with Tamil protesters who had the temerity to block the Gardiner Expressway to protest violence in their homeland as the civil war there ground to a bitter end.

Well excuse me! Are we suffering from collective Alzheimer’s, or what? Does anyone in this country possess a short-term memory any more?

Was I dreaming back in March when federal immigration minister Jason Kenny used Canada’s anti-terrorism laws to deny entry to George Galloway (at right), the fiery anti-war British Member of Parliament who had the cheek to support the right of Palestinians to have their own country and govern themselves?

Indeed, a strong case can be made that from a Canadian perspective, Mr. Galloway presented considerably less of a threat to our national security than do Canadian parliamentarians to Sri Lanka’s.

Unlike Canada, which has been blessed with generations of peace and order, if not good government, the Sri Lankan national government has only days ago emerged victorious in a 26-year civil war during much of which Tamil secessionists ruled large parts of the country as their own.

None of this is to deny that the Tamils had cause for complaint, or even the right to their own country, or to suggest that Mr. Rae is not a fine and principled man, or that human-rights violations are not taking place in Sri Lanka.

But really, people, isn’t it just a little rich for Canadians to be all aflutter because the Sri Lankans turned Mr. Rae away when we did exactly the same thing with considerably less justification only weeks before?

The Sri Lankan government, at least, can argue it must be allowed a little time without distractions to consolidate its civil war victory. Would the saintly Abraham Lincoln (iconically recognizable at left) have welcomed a delegation of British Parliamentarians to the (still) United States to check up on the rights of defeated Confederates in the second week of April 1865? I very much doubt it!

The lesson here, of course, is not that Mr. Rae should have been denied permission to visit Sri Lanka. It is that, as the saying goes, people who live in glass houses ought not to throw stones.

This case is a perfect illustration of why Mr. Kenney had no business banning Mr. Galloway from Canada. It was wrong on its own merits. It was a pointless assault on the right of Canadians to hear a variety of opinions on controversial issues. It was, to paraphrase the Foreign Affairs spokeswoman, “absurd to suggest that Mr. Galloway represents a threat to Canadian national security.”

More seriously, it denies Canada the moral high ground when both we and the people of Sri Lanka need it. It quite rightly shows us up as hypocrites.

Premier Stelmach congratulates Gordon Campbell Darrell Dexter on election victory


TO: Assistant Deputy Chief, Premier’s Communications Braintrust

RE: Election of majority New Democratic government by Nova Scotia voters

Hey, Big Guy, how ya doin’? I notice that those crazy Nova Scotians have gone and elected a New Democratic Party government, and one with a solid majority no less. What a bunch of kooks. Can you imagine? They actually fell for the goofy idea you’re more likely to have a balanced budget with a bunch of tax and spend socialists at the helm than good sensible Conservatives like us and Rod MacDonald! Where the hell would they get an idea like that, anyway? I mean, other than those New Democratic governments they used to have in British Columbia and Saskatchewan. Thank God and the Calgary oilpatch they’re gone, eh?

Balanced budgets. I mean! Really! It’s impossible, as we keeep telling people. Then more jobs, of course. Plus fair labour laws. The next thing you know, they’re going to let blueberry pickers join unions, and civilization as we know it will come to an end!

Speaking of British Columbia, remember that email I sent you last month, asking about that nice news release your boss wrote when Gordon Campbell, the Social Credit premier of British Columbia, was re-elected. You’ll recall how I wondered if your boss would have written the same sort of thing if that Carole James the Knee-Dipper had won. You said you don’t deal in hypotheticals, remember?

Well, yikes! Now the hypothetical’s upon us! I know your boss won’t want to say anything – he’ll probably tell you it’s too far away, and they’re just a bunch of Stalinists – whoops, sorry! – anyway. And, like, no doubt this is sure to mean a big increase in the price of apples and blueberries, eh? But, still, I think it would look better, more graceful like, if you said something congratulatory, dontcha think?

I know you’re really busy these days, planning the government’s next branding masterstrokes and telling members of the Legislative Press Gallery to f**k off and everything, so I thought I’d help out and write you up a release for tomorrow. I was in a bit of a hurry myself, so I used your Gordon Campbell release as a template. Hope you don’t mind.

Hey, I’m looking forward to seeing “my” work on the government Website tomorrow.

All the best,


+ + +

June 10, 2009

Premier Stelmach congratulates Gordon Campbell Darrell Dexter on election victory

Edmonton… Premier Ed Stelmach offered his congratulations to British Columbia Nova Scotia Premier-elect Gordon Campbell Darrell Dexter, whose B.C. Liberal New Democratic Pparty won a third decisive majority government victory on May 13 June 9.

“I look forward to continuing to working with Premier-elect Campbell Dexter on building the New West Canada,” said Premier Stelmach. “His re-election ensures that we can continue to reduce trade and labour barriers between Alberta and B.C., a policy that has set the example for the rest of the country. And we can continue to address other areas of mutual interest, such as safer communities, the environment and the challenges facing the forest industry.”

Premier Stelmach noted that Premier-elect Campbell Dexter is the first B.C. Nova Scotia premier in a quarter century history to win form three straight majority an NDP governments in Atlantic Canada.

“Premier-elect Campbell Dexter provided offered the economic stability B.C. Nova Scotia neededs during these difficult economic times. His personal drive and commitment to address the issues that matter to the people of British Columbia Nova Scotia, making difficult but necessary decisions in the process, has been rewarded with a solid vote of confidence and a majority government by the people of B.C. Nova Scotia.”

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Saint City News column: Conservative accounting explained – only public employees are this efficient!

This column appeared in today’s edition of the Saint City News:
I think I’ve found the answer to a question many of us have been asking for a long time about the Harper Conservatives: Yes! They do think we’re stupid.
Let me explain. Recently I sent an email to Brent Rathgeber, St. Albert’s Conservative Member of Parliament. I wrote:
“Say it ain’t so, Brent! I’m as patriotic as the next St. Albertan, but I was astounded to read in the public prints that you plan to mail a Canadian flag sticker and a reply card to every household in the riding. Good lord! What’s the cost of this frivolous exercise? With Finance Minister Jim Flaherty moaning about the size of the deficit, wouldn’t the patriotic thing be to save our pennies instead of investing them in fripperies like this? How can patriotic Canadians in good conscience return the reply cards during a crisis of national belt tightening? Just wondering.”
Mr. Rathgeber replied – or, rather, Mark Johnson, his communications assistant, replied on his behalf:
“… Mr. Rathgeber, as well as some of his colleagues have begun a Proud to Be Canadian Campaign. The main basis of this campaign is a ‘Householder’ mailing to all homes in the constituency. Every MP is entitled to four Householders per year as a part of their operating cost. Due to the large quantity and bulk purchasing power of the Parliament of Canada, the cost for these mailings is quite minimal. To provide each household in Edmonton-St. Albert (approximately 50,500) with a booklet on the history of Canada’s flag, as well as a cutout paper flag to post in their window will only provide a cost to taxpayers of approximately $200.”

From this, I submit, we can almost certainly conclude that the Conservatives think we are quite dumb. Either that, or the Parliament of Canada uses completely different bookkeeping rules from the “generally accepted accounting principles” required by real accountants.

Leastways, I have been involved one way or another with the publishing industry for more than a quarter of a century, and I can tell you with absolute confidence that you cannot – simply cannot – print and mail 50,500 copies of a single black and white sheet of paper, let alone a well-designed booklet with a postcard and a flag sticker added in, for less than half a penny per copy.
I don’t care how good your Government of Canada discount is, you can’t do this even if you only count the paper and the ink and ignore fixed costs like the designer, the writer, the printer, the press, the roof to keep the rain off them all, the trucks and planes to carry their work to you, the mail sorters, the delivery people … and Mr. Johnson, of course. Never mind the depreciation!
Sorry. No can do! Who do you think pays for those four householders each of our 308 MPs get every year?
Then again, maybe I just spent too much time in private industry where everything is done for a profit. I’ll give you this, if anyone could miraculously create and print 50,500 packages containing fancy leaflets, flags and postcards and deliver them to 50,500 homes (except in new subdivisions with “super boxes,” of course), it could only be a public employee.
No private-sector worker is that hard working, efficient, or public spirited. No private sector employee could do this job at 10 times the cost! Which is a pretty good argument, come to think of it, for keeping public jobs public.
Still, even considering the genuine advantages of using public employees, this yarn illustrates why we ought to think carefully any time a Conservative politician tells us the federal deficit has topped $50-billion, or that it’s been balanced, or that there’s a “crisis” in health care that needs help from the private sector.

Teaching under with Bill 44: Start by taking control of class and curriculum

…Send the ones whose parents won’t co-operate down to the cafeteria for Cokes and deep-fried Twinkies. They won’t miss a thing.

As we all get used to the new reality of educating young people in Alabamberta during the era of the Edmonton Hillbillies (Let me tell ya a story ’bout a man named Ed), wise counsel for teachers preparing for the new term arrives in this morning’s mailbag.

One Skinny Dipper, a blogger from Ontario who sounds like a teacher to me, suggests notifying parents right from the get-go that all learning during the upcoming term may turn to such topics as sexual orientation, sexuality, religion or … God help us all! … evolution at any moment. (OK, I added the E-word myself, but I’m sure Skinny would approve.)

“Alberta teachers need to fight back by sending a permission form to the students’ parents and guardians that lasts for the whole school year,” writes Skinny.

A teacher could do this, Skinny suggests, by declaring “world studies” to be their classroom’s theme, explaining what that might mean and making parents and guardians agree on Day 1.

“Essentially, it is a 10 month permission form that the parents would need to sign,” he (or she) says. “It puts the onus on the parents to accept a whole-world concept of teaching and learning rather than a piecemeal approach of exclusive teaching and learning.”

Skinny notes that some Ontario schools do this now with permission forms for such commonplace activities as tours of nearby natural areas to study science. “This is much easier than sending permission forms every time a teacher wants to take his/her students offsite.”

This strikes me as sound advice for public school teachers. The problem, I’ll wager, will be principals, most of whom didn’t get where they are now by being bold.

I expect that the typical school principal, in Alberta as elsewhere, will counsel trying to fly under the radar, hoping against hope that one of the forbidden topics never comes up. Say, for example, what if someone asks, “How old is this rock?” (Recommended answer in the Hillbillies’ Alberta: “Very, very old.”)

The problem with that, of course, is that some kids ask the darndest questions, and others are sure to run home and tell their moms and dads how Teacher answered.

It’s going to come up. And it’s going to cause someone grief. Sooner or later, some bright spark of a kid who reads too much is going to ask: “Teach, what’s a ‘two-backed beast’?” (Suggested answer: “It’s just some metaphor that meant something to the author. These poets are always coming up with stuff like this. It’s impossible to know what he had in mind.” Thanks for that one, Mr. Kendrick!)

So why not do as Skinny suggests and sort them all out on the first day. Send the ones whose parents won’t co-operate down to the cafeteria for Cokes and deep-fried Twinkies. They won’t miss a thing.

Class dismissed!

Ignorance-bombs away! Welcome to Alabamberta!

Now that the Alberta Legislature’s passed Bill 44, I’m going to download a Duelling Banjos ringtone for my cellphone. That way, when I’m traveling in British Columbia later this week, folks’ll know where I’m from every time my phone rings!

One expects, however, that a lot of Albertans travelling elsewhere in Canada will adopt the opposite strategy. I think of this as the “American Approach,” as in stitching a Canadian flag on your knapsack and pretending you’re from somewhere more enlightened … say, the back woods of New Brunswick or rustbelt Ontario. “Uh, like, I’m from … Oshawa! You know, near Owen Sound… Thanks for asking…”

Seriously, folks, this may be embarrassing, but it’s going to get worse. It’s only a matter of time before Ed Stelmach’s comedic hickocracy puts someone on trial for having too much edumucation and teaching evolution to children. (Which is, as my Sunday School teacher admonished and Honest Ed knows in his heart to be true, nothing more than “Devil-ution!) Or, even worse, tells the kids about condominiums!

What’s got into these guys, you wonder? Personally, I think it’s simple, small-minded malice. Forced by those bad old federal courts to recognize the basic human rights of gay people, they got their revenge by embedding this little ignorance bomb in the relevant piece of legislation. Enlighten me? I’ll show you!

Well, they did show us! And it plays to their base to boot!

Who could ask for more? Well, now that they’ve sorted out the uppity schoolteachers, if they could just come up with a juicily ironic way to get at the college perfessers, the place would be pretty well perfect.

Welcome to Alabamberta!